I met Donald Trump at a party in midtown Manhattan hosted by Dominick Dunne, the novelist and Vanity Fair journalist. It was October 1999 and the party was being held to celebrate the launch of Dunne’s new book, The Way We Lived Then, which is about old Hollywood (the title is a nod to Anthony Trollope).
Trump wasn’t there to talk to people, of course, but to be photographed, an ambition at which he fully succeeded, significantly helped by the presence of his striking new girlfriend, Melania Knauss (now his third wife). Trump’s urgent need to be noticed manifested itself as a kind of weird social radiance. What is interesting, from my point of view, is that I’ve forgotten the other guests at that party, many of equal celebrity, far greater achievement and much more interest. Trump registers with people, including, to my surprise, with me.
Those strands of Trump’s personality have served his presidential ambitions well. He leaves an impression, his central point of difference from the amorphous Beltway professionals whom he ridicules. “Ghastly” or “vulgar” aren’t really criticisms in Trump’s world-view; “forgettable”, however, is the bottom of the moral scale. This instantly creates asymmetries for his opponents: it is difficult to inflict reputational damage on a politician who neither needs nor craves respectability.
But personal magnetism – I cannot bring myself to type “charisma” – does not explain the Trump phenomenon. He is the most spectacular beneficiary of something far wider and more international: the perception that politics as we know it is failing. Running against Washington is as old as Washington, but never has it looked quite like this.
How do you like anti-politics now? For it is anti-politics – the contempt for the “establishment” and the convenient flight from serious debate about how it could better exercise power – that has taken Donald Trump to within striking distance of a shot at the White House. And as the search for the right person or plan to stop him becomes frantic (the responsibility is America’s, the concern is global), we should ask the wider questions. What if intelligent people – pundits and voters alike – had stood up more bravely for the political mainstream, pointing out the necessity of compromise, pragmatism and disappointment? Strands of the Republican Party now regret the visceral attacks they sanctioned against President Obama. The party unleashed a demotic rage that subsequently turned against its own establishment. The analogy applies far beyond the Republican Party: is anti-politics a parlour game that has got out of control?
Ironically, the ascent of the establishment as a focus of hatred and political anger has coincided with the decline of the establishment as an instrument of power. Think of the weakness of the establishment currently governing the Republicans in America. It has proved notably useless at doing all the things establishments are supposed to do: manipulate power behind the scenes, undermine mavericks and keep the show on the road.
This failure seems especially out of character for the Republicans. Even allowing for the insanity of its Tea Party strands, you would have expected the GOP – if its “establishment” was what we imagined it to be – to have snuffed out this Trump nonsense, probably during a grouse shoot in South Carolina, or over a few holes of golf at Augusta National in Georgia. Isn’t power what these people do? No longer, it seems, except in our imagination. So why are we so sure that the establishment, which can’t even cough up a decent candidate, is the power pulling the strings? I am beginning to wonder if the establishment’s new role, far from the exercise of unchecked power, is to provide a convenient palliative sideshow. So long as we insist that the establishment is messing up the world, then we won’t have to face up to tangible and worsening political problems and our reluctance to debate them seriously.
Donald Trump is both the embodiment of political failure and the result of political failure – or perceived political failure. He represents political failure because he has accelerated the descent of political discourse: “They’re rapists, build walls, ban Muslims.” He is the result of political failure because he taps in to a deep, subliminal anger: the conviction that “the system” has betrayed and abandoned the people.
Why do so many people feel this way, to the extent that even Trump (and other preposterous candidates) become palatable? Despite widespread political correctness, there is one group that it is perfectly legitimate to despise: politicians. When I worked for a newspaper, I was surprised one day to hear a reporter, usually so fair and mild-mannered, describe her hatred and contempt for politicians – “the worst people, just disgusting”. This is the kind of comment you hear from normally civilised and balanced people, who usually don’t know any politicians personally, but feel quite certain of the truth of their conviction.
In Britain, the parliamentary expenses scandal, though indefensible, was not the cause of this contempt, but rather its consequence. Given the strength of the underlying hatred, an appropriate story was always going to come along that allowed our contempt to be channelled into ridicule. I’ve seen news stories operate along the same lines in professional sport. When a manager or team has become unpopular with the fans, an event or “error” will act as a lightning rod for general ill-feeling. Usually the tipping point is quite routine; people get away with much worse when their stock is high.
Why are politicians and the “establishment” so despised? The new populism is partly a delayed consequence of the end of deference, in part fuelled by the emergence, especially on social media, of a strong, hard-edged and almost daily picture of “the will of the people”. Maybe this is what real democracy looks like?
Economics is also central to the “age of rage”. In the loosest terms – except among the very poorest – even “late capitalism” has continued to raise absolute living standards, albeit increasingly slowly. But few people judge their wealth according to absolute living standards. Wealth is perceived as relative to something else: relative to the past, relative to others (especially those inside “the establishment”) and, crucially, relative to individuals’ own expectations.
By those criteria, most people feel much poorer. The political class itself is the target of these economic frustrations, exacerbated by the financial crisis, even though politics is far from a complete explanation.
Second, there is a sense that politics has “failed” at ground level. This has two deep causes, which, taken together, create a significant credibility gap. First, as politics has been professionalised, its practitioners have become better at knowing what to say to get elected. Whatever their other failings, none of us can doubt that politicians spend more time than ever working out what the electorate wants, and devote greater energy towards trying to suggest that they know how to deliver it.
Having professionalised electoral messaging, politicians simultaneously professionalised avoiding controversy once in power. The degeneration of the political interview into unlistenable banalities is only one side of the coin. The flipside is the gaffe-hungry media, encouraged by an anti-politics sentiment in the electorate. The “gotcha” culture of debate doesn’t make politicians accountable, it makes them evasive.
The continual threat of being “caught out” saying the wrong thing – or saying anything – coexists with the perpetual expectation that politicians will be saying something at all times. We have drifted towards the assumption that politicians will speak in public non-stop, yet without taking any risks: the definition of a boring conversation. Trump’s ghastly voice seems fresh to so many people because he isn’t schooled in this tradition.
Professional political strategy clings to the notion that any vacuum creates space for an opposition advance. I think they’re wrong, and that it is impossible for politicians to have interesting and important things to say on the hour, every day. My view, in contrast, is that politicians devalue their own words by printing too many of them. But would they do it if the electorate didn’t expect it?
The ultra-professionalisation of politics has coincided with a huge crunch on the state’s capacity to expand. A simplistic history of politics in the second half of the 20th century would show parties winning power by handing out an ever-expanding range of goodies. Today, however, that arrangement is pincered from three sides: an ageing population, burgeoning expectations, and the weight of existing commitments to taxpayers, such as pensions. So, the central challenge facing overstretched liberal democracies is obvious: people want more services and benefits than they want to pay for. (Evidence that voters prefer not to focus on this contradiction lies in the remarkable success of Bernie Sanders, who promises more of everything without explaining how to pay for it. Both the Trump and the Sanders campaigns channel political disenchantment, but they exploit the feeling in opposite ways.)
For governments, however, a credibility deficit accumulates over the long term. And even quite effective administrations, as a result, leave the impression of significant underachievement. In other words, just when politicians have professionalised the art of saying the “right” thing, they have found it harder than ever to get things done in office. As with living standards, it is this deficit – the gap between political promises and governmental performance – that is causing problems, not the performance alone. Are today’s governments really worse than some of those gone? If so, when exactly were these exceptional governments of the past? These questions, intriguing as they are, do not figure in how people think.
How can the political class narrow the credibility gap? The tempting answer is to suggest providing the kind of sparkling, error-free government that has never existed and never will exist. The other problem, revising improbable expectations, at least might be achieved. In the ultra-professional era, political parties have suffered from a kind of prisoner’s dilemma: if, despite the long-term problem of credibility, they don’t play the media-friendly game of promises and button-pushing, someone else will.
After all, what does the alternative look like? “You can’t have this, lower your expectations, things are going to be hard”: it’s easy to see why politicians don’t relish saying these things, even when they’re true. The whole process that has led to today’s political disenchantment is all too rational: rational politicians coming up with rational avoidance strategies for problems that may not be soluble. Haven’t we, the electorate, played a part in that process, too?
Domestic frustrations are compounded by threats emanating from abroad. Hyper-terrorism, globalisation and migration on an unprecedented scale are huge problems and challenges with no obvious solutions. Donald Trump has exploited fears on both counts with crass answers. How much harder it is to turn complex approaches to the two problems into easy soundbites.
When I was living in New York in the late 1990s, the Clintons seemed to represent a great deal of what was wrong with politics. Ethically they hovered somewhere between dodgy and outright corrupt. Their personal relationship seemed an extension of political lobbying, more an alliance than a marriage; politically they told us how much they cared, rather than showing it. Bill had the partially redeeming quality of charm. Hillary had a talking-clock voice and predictable opinions – her 1996 book, It Takes a Village, was beyond parody – without Bill’s knowing wink.
And now? If she is up against Trump in November, I will happily stuff envelopes and campaign for her. Whatever it takes. The nature of my U-turn says everything about Trump: nothing about Hillary, whose reputation has become even more tarnished and whose political voice is more jaded. If she must be the future, we can be in no doubt about the impoverishment of the choice.
There is a view that a win for Hillary, and the restoration of competent (but cynical) middle-ground politics, will show the hollowness of anti-politics as a movement – a frenzy that won’t survive the cold rationality of the ballot box. This opinion holds that it is parties that have gone nuts, not the people. “This is not the revolt of the public against the party leadership,” argued Philip Collins in the Times. “It is the revolt of the party activists against the public.”
Yet the view that a Hillary win will see predictable centrism safely restored feels wide of the mark. I doubt a simple reprisal of Clinton-Blairism (which Daniel Finkelstein defined as the idea that it is “possible to do everything without upsetting anybody”) can get us out of this hole. Trump taps in to something frightening. If it’s defeated this time, it will still come back, even if the man will not. Until the deficit of political credibility is reduced, the demotic potential of the populist “outsider” will remain.
And next time I’m pretty sure it will be someone nastier than Donald Trump. The need is to find a better Hillary Clinton. That will only get harder if intelligent people go on paying lip-service to anti-politics. There are always establishments. The important question is how good they are.
Ed Smith is a contributing writer for the New Statesman